Opinion: Draft Bill is sign of the sector's coming of age

Over the Whitsuntide break I set about clearing out some boxes in the attic.

Among a job-lot we had once bought at auction, I found a book published in 1979 called The Charity Commission and the Age of Reform by Richard Thompson. This pulled me up short at the end of a week when the draft Charities Bill had been published and my new role at the commission had been announced. It was fate that I should start reading.

The tome explores the early days of the first Royal Commission of Inquiry, which sat from 1818 to 1837 to look into the "chaotic organisation of charities". In 1853, 10 years after its report was completed, a permanent Board of Charity Commissioners was established, which battled to define the boundaries between anarchy and autonomy by "undertaking countrywide tours to collect evidence".

Those who had looked to this commission as the culmination of a reform agenda were initially disappointed by the lack of finite solutions for bringing order to the charitable world's chaos. It seemed to some you could not - in today's terms - nail this jelly to the wall without also losing the philanthropy, its very essence. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that it heralded the start of a unique system of support, monitoring and learning for charities based on a consistent methodology for inquiry by the commission.

The commission also provided an interesting bridge, as it still does, between judiciary, administration and education. The new role outlined for the commission in the draft Charities Bill builds on this and defines a crucial part for it to play in enabling a new era for charity. The Bill anticipates regulation that empowers citizens and organisations, enabling them to find their own balance between risk and responsibility in building social capital for public benefit. It also promises an unleashing of energy within our sector as it comes of age, combining entrepreneurial zeal with social responsibility.

Next to the book on the Charity Commission was one by Philip Larkin and, in a poem appositely entitled Whitsun Weddings, I found words that seemed to sum up this impetus: "...and what it held/Stood ready to be loosed with all the power/ That being changed can give."

Geraldine Peacock is a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner, but writes in a personal capacity.

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